More Details on the Black Hole that Swallowed a Screaming Star

Images from Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical (white, purple) and X-Ray telescopes (yellow and red) were combined to make this view of Swift J1644+57. Evidence of the flares is seen only in the X-ray image, which is a 3.4-hour exposure taken on March 28, 2011. Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

Back in June we reported on the black hole that devoured a star and then hurled the x-ray energy across billions of light years, right at Earth. It was such a spectacular and unprecedented event, that more studies have been done on the source, known as Swift J1644+57, and the folks at the Goddard Space Flight Center mulitmedia team have produced an animation (above) of what the event may have looked like. Two new papers were published yesterday in Nature; one from a group at NASA studying the data from the Swift satellite and the Japanese Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) instrument aboard the International Space Station, and the other from scientists using ground-based observatories.

They have confirmed what happened was the result of a truly extraordinary event — the awakening of a distant galaxy’s dormant black hole as it shredded, sucked and consumed a star, and the X-ray burst was akin to the death screams of the star.


In the new studies, detailed analysis of MAXI and Swift observations revealed this was the first time that a nucleus with no previous X-ray emission had ever suddenly started such activity. The strong X-ray and rapid variation indicated that the X-ray came from a jet that was pointed right at Earth.

“Incredibly, this source is still producing X-rays and may remain bright enough for Swift to observe into next year,” said David Burrows, professor of astronomy at Penn State University and lead scientist for Swift’s X-Ray Telescope instrument. “It behaves unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

The galaxy is so far away, it took the light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach Earth (that distance was updated from the 3.8 billion light years reported in June).

The black hole in the galaxy hosting Swift J1644+57, located in the constellation Draco, may be twice the mass of the four-million-solar-mass black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. As a star falls toward a black hole, it is ripped apart by intense tides. The gas is corralled into a disk that swirls around the black hole and becomes rapidly heated to temperatures of millions of degrees.

The innermost gas in the disk spirals toward the black hole, where rapid motion and magnetism create dual, oppositely directed “funnels” through which some particles may escape. Jets driving matter at velocities greater than 90 percent the speed of light form along the black hole’s spin axis.

This illustration steps through the events that scientists think likely resulted in Swift J1644+57. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift

The Swift satellite detected flares from this region back on March 28, 2011, and the flares were initially assumed to signal a gamma-ray burst, one of the nearly daily short blasts of high-energy radiation often associated with the death of a massive star and the birth of a black hole in the distant universe. But as the emission continued to brighten and flare, astronomers realized that the most plausible explanation was the tidal disruption of a sun-like star seen as beamed emission.

“The radio emission occurs when the outgoing jet slams into the interstellar environment, and by contrast, the X-rays arise much closer to the black hole, likely near the base of the jet,” said Ashley Zauderer, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass, lead author of a study of the event from numerous ground-based radio observatories, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Expanded Very Large Array (EVLA) near Socorro, N.M.

“Our observations show that the radio-emitting region is still expanding at more than half the speed of light,” said Edo Berger, an associate professor of astrophysics at Harvard and a coauthor of the radio paper. “By tracking this expansion backward in time, we can confirm that the outflow formed at the same time as the Swift X-ray source.”

Swift launched in November 2004 and MAXI is mounted on the Japanese Kibo module on the ISS (installed in July 2009) and has been monitoring the whole sky since August 2009.

See more images and animations at the Goddard Space Flight Center Multimedia page.

Sources: Nature, JAXA, NASA

Nearby Galaxy Has Two Monster Black Holes

Viewed in visible light, Markarian 739 resembles a smiling face. Inside are two supermassive black holes, separated by about 11,000 light-years. The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth. Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey


Why does this galaxy appear to be smiling? The answer might be because it has been holding a secret that astrophysicists have only now just uncovered: there are two — count ‘em – two gigantic black holes inside this nearby galaxy, named Markarian 739 (or NGC 3758), and both are very active. While massive black holes are common, only about one percent of them are considered as active and powerful – called active galactic nuclei (AGN). Binary AGN are rarer still: Markarian 739 is only the second identified within half a billion light-years from Earth.

Markarian 739 is actually a pair of merging galaxies. For decades, astronomers have known that the eastern nucleus of Markarian 739 contains a black hole that is actively accreting matter and generating an exceptional amount of energy. Now, data from the Swift satellite along with the Chandra X-ray Observatory Swift has revealed an AGN in the western half as well. This makes the galaxy one of the nearest and clearest cases of a binary AGN.

The galaxy is 425 million light-years away from Earth.

How did the second AGN remain hidden for so long? “Markarian 739 West shows no evidence of being an AGN in visible, ultraviolet and radio observations,” said Sylvain Veilleux, a professor of astronomy at University of Maryland in College Park , and a coauthor of a new paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. “This highlights the critical importance of high-resolution observations at high X-ray energies in locating binary AGN.”

Since 2004, the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) aboard Swift has been mapping high-energy X-ray sources all around the sky. The survey is sensitive to AGN up to 650 million light-years away and has uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems.

Michael Koss, the lead author of this study, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and UMCP, did follow-up studies of the BAT mapping and he and his colleagues published a paper in 2010 that revealed that about a quarter of the Swift BAT AGN were either interacting or in close pairs, with perhaps 60 percent of them poised to merge in another billion years.

“If two galaxies collide and each possesses a supermassive black hole, there should be times when both black holes switch on as AGN,” said coauthor Richard Mushotzky, professor of astronomy at UMCP. “We weren’t seeing many double AGN, so we turned to Chandra for help.”

Swift’s BAT instrument is scanning one-tenth of the sky at any given moment, its X-ray survey growing more sensitive every year as its exposure increases. Where Swift’s BAT provided a wide-angle view, the X-ray telescope aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory acted like a zoom lens and resolved details a hundred times smaller.

The distance separating the two black holes is about 11,000 light-years , or about a third of the distance separating the solar system from the center of our own galaxy. The dual AGN of Markarian 739 is the second-closest known, both in terms of distance from one another and distance from Earth. However, another galaxy known as NGC 6240 holds both records.

Source: Swift Telescope webpage

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

Crab Nebula Flares

A composite illustration of the AGILE satellite and the Crab Nebula imaged by the Chandra observatory. [Image courtesy of ASI, INAF and NASA]
A composite illustration of the AGILE satellite and the Crab Nebula imaged by the Chandra observatory. [Image courtesy of ASI, INAF and NASA]


The Crab Nebula is one of the most popular targets for astronomers of all stripes. It is readily viewable in moderate sized amateur telescopes and wows new viewers at star parties when they’re informed they’re looking at the remnant of a supernova that exploded in 1054 AD. The nebula is also a popular target for professional astronomers looking to study physics in the environment of a pulsar. Powered by synchrotron radiation from the pulsar, the nebula glows brightly across numerous wavelengths in a steady manner that is so consistent, that astronomers have used it to calibrate instruments in different portions of the spectrum. The largest regular variation discovered was a mere 3.5% in the X-ray portion of the spectrum.

But on September 22 of 2010, the Italian Space Agency’s AGILE satellite observed a sudden brightening in the nebula in the gamma ray portion of the spectrum. The Large Area Telescope (LAT) on board the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, which observes the Crab regularly, confirmed this flaring. Strangely, telescopes observing the nebula in other spectral regimes showed no brightening at all. The lone exception was a small knot roughly one arcsecond in diameter seen by the Chandra X-ray telescope which is believed to correspond to the base of a jet emanating from the pulsar.

Many telescopes observed the central pulsar in X-rays as well as radio to attempt to discover if there had been a sudden change in the power source itself that caused the sudden brightening, but no changes were apparent. This suggests that the flare didn’t come directly from the pulsar, but rather from the nebula itself, perhaps as an interaction between the jet and the magnetic field of the nebula causing intense synchrotron radiation. If this is the cause, then the energy of the accelerated electrons is among the highest of any astronomical event. Such a case is of interest to astronomers and physicists because it provides a rare test bed into relativistic physics and particle acceleration theory.

While this event was certainly noteworthy, it was not entirely unique. AGILE detected a previous flare on October 7, 2007 and Fermi’s LAT had discovered another in February 2009. Currently, none of these events have been entirely explained but will likely give astronomers a target for future studies. Based on the amount of coverage the Crab Nebula receives from telescopes, astronomers are no expecting that such flares are a relatively common occurrence, happening about once a year. If so, this will provide an excellent opportunity to study such events with more scrutiny.

Solving the Mystery of Dark Gamma Ray Bursts

Artists impression of a dark gamma-ray burst. Credit: ESO

Unraveling the mystery of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) is a story filled with international intrigue, fantastic claims, serious back-tracking, and incremental improvements in our understanding of the true nature and implications of the most energetic, destructive forces in the Universe. New results from a team of scientists studying so-called “dark gamma-ray bursts” have firmly snapped a new piece into the GRB puzzle. This research is presented in a paper to appear in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics on December 16, 2010.

The discovery of GRBs was an unexpected result of the American space program and the military keeping tabs on the Russians to verify compliance with a cold war nuclear test ban treaty. In order to be sure the Russians weren’t detonating nuclear weapons on the far side of the Moon, the 1960’s era Vela spacecraft were equipped with gamma ray detectors. The Moon might shield the obvious signature of x-rays from the far side, but gamma rays would penetrate right through the Moon and would be detectible by the Vela satellites.

By 1965, it became apparent that events which triggered the detectors but were clearly not signatures of nuclear detonations, so they were carefully, and secretly, filed away for future study. In 1972, astronomers were able to deduce the directions to the events with sufficient accuracy to rule out the Sun and Earth as sources. They came to the conclusion that these gamma-ray events were “of cosmic origin”. In 1973, this discovery was announced in the Astrophysical Journal.

This created quite stir in the astronomical community and dozens of papers on GRBs and their causes began appearing in the literature. Initially, most hypothesized the origin of these events came from within our own galaxy. Progress was painfully slow until the 1991 launch of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. This satellite provided crucial data indicating that the distribution of GRBs is not biased towards any particular direction in space, such as toward the galactic plane or the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. GRBs came from everywhere all around us. They are “cosmic” in origin. This was a big step in the right direction, but created more questions.

For decades, astronomers searched for a counterpart, any astronomical object coincident with a recently observed burst. But the lack of precision in the location of GRBs by the instruments of the day frustrated attempts to pin down the sources of these cosmic explosions. In 1997, BeppoSAX detected a GRB in x-rays shortly after an event and the optical after glow was detected 20 hours later by the William Herschel Telescope. Deep imaging was able to identify a faint, distant galaxy as the host of the GRB. Within a year the argument over the distances to GRBs was over. GRBs occur in extremely distant galaxies. Their association with supernovae and the deaths of very massive stars also gave clues to the nature of the systems that produce GRBs.

It wasn’t too long before the race to identify optical afterglows of GRBs heated up and new satellites helped pinpoint the locations of these after glows and their host galaxies. The Swift satellite, launched in 2004, is equipped with a very sensitive gamma ray detector as well as X-ray and optical telescopes, which can be rapidly slewed to observe afterglow emissions automatically following a burst, as well as send notification to a network of telescopes on the ground for quick follow up observations.

Today, astronomers recognize two classifications of GRBs, long duration events and short duration events. Short gamma-ray bursts are likely due to merging neutron stars and not associated with supernovae. Long-duration gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are critical in understanding the physics of GRB explosions, the impact of GRBs on their surroundings, as well as the implications of GRBs on early star formation and the history and fate of the Universe.

While X-ray afterglows are usually detected for each GRB, some still refused to give up their optical afterglow. Originally, those GRBs with X-ray but without optical afterglows were coined “dark GRBs”. The definition of “dark gamma-ray burst” has been refined, by adding a time and brightness limit, and by calculating the total output of energy of the GRB.

This lack of an optical signature could have several origins. The afterglow could have an intrinsically low luminosity. In other words, there may just be bright GRBs and faint ones. Or the optical energy could be strongly absorbed by intervening material, either locally around the GRB or along the line-of-sight through the host galaxy. Another possibility is that the light could be at such a high redshift that blanketing and absorption by the intergalactic medium would prohibit detection in the R band frequently used to make these detections.

In the new study, astronomers combined Swift data with new observations made using GROND, a dedicated GRB follow-up instrument attached to the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO telescope at La Silla in Chile. GROND is an exceptional tool for the study of GRB afterglows. It can observe a burst within minutes of an alert coming from Swift, and it has the ability to observe through seven filters simultaneously, covering the visible and near-infrared parts of the spectrum.

By combining GROND data taken through these seven filters with Swift observations, astronomers were able to accurately determine the amount of light emitted by the afterglow at widely differing wavelengths, all the way from high energy X-rays to the near-infrared. They then used this data to directly measure the amount of obscuring dust between the GRB and observers on Earth. Thankfully, the team has found that dark GRBs don’t require exotic explanations.

What they found is that a significant proportion of bursts are dimmed to about 60–80 percent of their original intensity by obscuring dust. This effect is exaggerated for the very distant bursts, letting the observer see only 30–50 percent of the light. By proving this to be so, these astronomers have conclusively solved the puzzle of the missing optical afterglows. Dark gamma-ray bursts are simply those that have had their visible light completely stripped away before it reaches us.